Lafayette’s Tour: And The Lucky Winner Is…

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The nation waited anxiously for a formal response to President James Monroe’s invitation to General Lafayette. In March and April of 1824, newspapers across the country printed letters hinting that Lafayette had prior commitments.

To Major Joseph Wheaton of Washington came word from Lafayette that “…duties to the cause of freedom make it, if not a matter of hope, at least a point of honor, to keep his present post.”1 Similarly, Lafayette wrote to Dr. James Thatcher, “At this moment a sense of duty keeps me on the European side of the Atlantic.”2

While the papers proclaimed these missives as “the latest communication from Lafayette,”3 they were months old by the time they hit the press. It wasn’t as if Lafayette disliked America. In truth, he loved his adopted country. He wrote his good friend William Eustis, Governor of Massachusetts, he was “as American patriot,” and that “for political civilization, honesty and steadiness the United States hold a rank so superior to every other human aggregation.”4

It wasn’t until late April or early May that the nation learned Lafayette had lost his election to French parliament and was now free to accept Monroe’s invitation. 5,6,7,8

By early June, reports indicated Lafayette would arrive “before fall, or perhaps in a very short time.” The source of this letter, “a gentleman now in Paris, who has lately visited Lafayette,” had more to say. He said Lafayette “is the best person I ever came across in my life, and one of the most modest and distinguished men in the world. He is absolutely too good for Europe. America is the soil alone congenial to him, and may he soon be there to know and see how much we cherish and love him, and prove that republics are not, as was formerly said, always ungrateful.”9

How’s that for enthusiasm?

By late June, word got out the Secretary of the Navy had ordered the North Carolina, a ship of the line out of Norfolk, Virginia, to be ready to convey Lafayette to the United States.10 These may have been outdated orders because by late April it was understood that Lafayette had declined the offer of the escort.11

Lafayette had decided to leave during the month of July. He hired out the American merchant ship Cadmus to sail from Havre. Together with his two travel companions and several unrelated passengers, he departed from that port at noon on July 13, 1824.12 But where would he land in America?

Which American port would win the honor of becoming Lafayette’s landing place? Would it be Norfolk, home of the Navy shipyard? Or how about that thriving port of New York, North America’s largest city? Maybe it would be Boston, the birthplace of America’s War of Independence.

Indeed, Boston was quick to jump at the opportunity. In early March, before the results of the French elections were even known, newspapers reported the Common Council of Boston had “appointed a committee to direct a letter in behalf of the City Council to Gen. Lafayette, requesting him, if not inconvenient, on his contemplated visit to the United States, to land in that place.” As if it wasn’t clear, they also sought to “assure him that his reception will be worthy of the city which has ever held in the highest estimation the services and sacrifices of the Adopted Son of Washington.”13

That was from the City of Boston itself. The State of Massachusetts would later enter the fray when its Senate passed the following resolution: “Whereas the Marquis De Lafayette may be expected to arrive in this country during the present year; therefore, Resolved, by the Senate and the House of Representatives in General Court assembled, that His Excellency the Governor and the Hon. Council be requested to make such arrangements as will secure to this distinguished friend of our country an honorable reception on the part of this State; and that His Excellency be authorized to draw his warrants upon the Treasury for such sum as may be necessary for this purpose.”14

Not to be outdone, a week later, New York City showed its muscle in a way only New York City can. Its board unanimously adopted:

“Whereas the Senate and House of Representatives, have lately by a concurrent resolution, requested the President of the U. States to give the Marquis La Fayette, an invitation to visit this country, and to communicate to him the assurances of grateful and affectionate attachment still cherished towards him, by the government and the people.

“And, as a further demonstration of respect, Congress directed that a national ship of the line, should be offered to the Marquis for the purpose of conveying him to the U. States.

“And, it being understood that the invitation has been given and accepted, and that the distinguished visitor may, probably shortly arrive at our city—Influenced as this Board is by a respectful deference to the Constituted Authorities of the General Government, and animated by the highest esteem for the public and private virtues of the Marquis LaFayette. It is therefore Resolved, That the Corporation of the City of New York, acting in behalf [of] their fellow citizens, will receive and treat, the Marquis De La Fayette, as a guest of the nation.

“Resolved, That a Committee of Five be appointed to prepare suitable apartments for his accommodation, and to furnish and supply them in a manner corresponding with the greatness and hospitality of our city, and the generous feelings of a free people.

“Resolved, That his Honor, the Mayor is hereby requested, upon the first announcement of the arrival of the Marquis in this city, to convene the Common Council in the City Hall, for the purpose of receiving him, and of conducting him to the residence which shall have been provided for him by this Board.

“Resolved, That his Honor the Mayor is hereby requested, immediately upon the arrival of the Marquis in this city, to communicate to him a copy of these proceedings, and to inform him that a committee of the Common Council will wait upon him, to conduct him to the City Hall.”15

And the winner was?

New York City!

No. Not really. Technically, Lafayette’s first steps on American soil were on Staten Island.

The Cadmus had arrived in New York Harbor on a Sunday. A steamboat carrying Vice President Daniel Tompkins’ son greeted Lafayette’s ship. The younger Tompkins informed Lafayette and his party, that, since the City was “unwilling to break the Sabbath, and which moreover had still some preparations to make,” would the Nation’s Guest mind first being the Vice President’s Guest by staying at his home on Staten Island until the next day?16

Soon after the three Frenchmen arrived at Vice President Tompkins residence, a brief shower passed through. As quickly as it appeared, the sun emerged once more, even before the rain had completely stopped. From the piazza of the Vice President’s house, a brilliant rainbow materialized. Below the spectrum of effluent colors, as if a sign from heaven, stood the distant Fort Lafayette.

The scene had an enduring impact on Lafayette. After pausing to take in its splendor, the General turned to his host and remarked, “this day has been full of happy omens to me in arriving among those who have treated me with so much unmerited kindness.”17

If Lafayette thought that day was special, just wait to see what he witnessed the next day.

Next Week: America Welcomes The Nation’s Guest

 

1 The National Gazette, Thursday, March 4, 1824, p.2
2 Richmond Enquirer, Friday, April 2, 1824, p.3
3 Ibid
4 Vermont Gazette, Tuesday, April 13, 1824, p.2
5 The National Gazette, Monday, April 26, 1824, p.2
6 Vermont Republican and American Yeoman, Monday, May 3, 1824, p.2
7 Woodstock Observer [Vermont], Tuesday, May 4, 1824, p.2
8 Gettysburg Compiler, Wednesday, May 5, 1824, p.3
9 Gettysburg Compiler, Wednesday, June 9, 1824, p.3
10 The Pittsfield Sun, Thursday, June 24, 1824, p.3
11 Georgia Journal and Messenger, Wednesday, June 30, 1824, p.3
12 Levasseur, A., Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825, John D. Godman translation, Philadelphia, Carey and Lea, 1829, p. 11
13 The National Gazette, Saturday, March 6, 1824, p.2
14 The Pittsfield Sun, Thursday, June 17, 1824, p.2
15 Richmond Enquirer, Tuesday, June 29, 1824, p.2
16 Levasseur, p.13
17 Poughkeepsie Journal, Wednesday, August 25, 1824, p.3

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